WILLIAMSTOWN -- Some composers go for grand statements in their final works; think of Mozart and Beethoven. Some refine: Verdi and, in our time, Carter.
To the refining group belongs Sibelius, as the Berkshire Symphony demonstrated with his Seventh Symphony on Friday night. In a single movement, it is a distillation of ideas he chewed over and enshrined in his previous six: mysterious mutterings, meanderings, climaxes and cries, all evocative of craggy loneliness amid northern forests.
The Berkshire performance, under director Ronald Feldman, made the point: This is not the Sibelius of the heroic, more widely performed First, Second and Fifth symphonies. Rather, it is the Sibelius who lived on for 32 years after completing the Seventh but composed little more of note. The ending is not in triumph, but in hopeful retrospection.
The Seventh, in effect, is the summation of a life's work and experience. The trombone motto that sets and sustains the mood was richly intoned by Wes Hopper.
The season-opening concert
bracketed the Seventh between a pair of distantly related pieces: John Knowles Paine's "As You Like It" overture and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3. All three performances by the mixed student-professional orchestra were broadly scaled and weighty, with textures sometimes turning thick in the resonances of Williams College's Chapin Hall.
The all-but-forgotten Paine overture, composed by a man whose First Symphony has been described as "the best Beethoven symphony not by Beethoven," is a sprightly, sparkly work. (It takes off from the Shakespeare comedy, after all.)
Conventional in form, and sounding like a cross between Beethoven and Mendelssohn, the concert piece could be a counterpart to the latter's "Midsummer Night's Dream" overture. The playing was lively but could have used a dusting of the fairy lightness that comes across in the Mendelssohn.
Still, it was good to hear from this father of American music. Like his mostly forgotten contemporary composers in and around Boston, Paine (1839-1906) was strongly influenced by European models. The music seems old-fashioned - after all, didn't Beethoven and Mendelssohn do the same thing better? -- but it remains viable and part of our heritage.
Which brings us to Beethoven and the C minor piano concerto, in which Williams artist-in-residence Doris Stevenson was the soloist.
Whether the slow tempos and rhythmic vagueness were part of a plan was hard to tell, but the result was a performance that occasionally took flight -- Stevenson got off some nice runs -- but often seemed to be finding its way. Stevenson, usually a vibrant pianist, seemed off her form, and the orchestra, possibly in response, sounded sluggish. An imperfectly tuned piano may have been part of the problem.